Review: iHome iH52 Home System for Your iPod
Pros: A four-component audio system for docking iPods and iPod shuffles, including a sophisticated iPod dock with integrated clock and very good AM/FM radio, twin satellite speakers with four total drivers, and a standalone ported subwoofer. Includes a RF remote control and the ability to toggle integrated screen to show large-font iPod track information. Pretty good sound for the price; works as a full computer or TV iPod dock thanks to dual video outputs and an iPod Dock Connector port.
Cons: Amplifier hiss and treble limitations detract a bit from otherwise pleasant sound quality; RF remote control performs no better than a good Infrared remote control. Limited equalization adjustments.
In late July, we reviewed iLuv’s i7500 (iLounge rating: D), a multi-component 2.1-channel audio system designed to blend an iPod dock with a digital AM/FM radio, CD player, and memory card reader - all for $200. It was clear pretty quickly that the i7500 was a much better idea than actual piece of audio hardware, with a weak subwoofer, poor component integration, and electronic problems that made its iPod dock more weird than useful. Now iHome - maker of the popular iH5 Clock Radio - has released the iH52 Home System ($200), a similarly full 2.1-channel and iPod dock combination for users of Dock Connecting iPods and the iPod shuffle. Though the iH52 lacks a couple of the i7500’s least useful features - the CD player and memory card reader - iHome has done just about everything else better than iLuv, and delivered a convenient little audio system that’s substantially worthy of its asking price.
Like iHome’s other offerings, iH52 begins with a digital AM/FM clock radio and iPod dock as a base, but here, instead of using a single box with integrated speakers, the speakers are in three separate cabinets - two satellites and a subwoofer. Thankfully, unlike iLuv, which seemed to have cobbled its similar speaker and dock components together haphazardly, iHome’s parts all work properly together: the satellites connect to the subwoofer, and the subwoofer connects to the iPod dock, which connects to external AM and FM radio antennas. Power is supplied to the whole system via a single cable to the subwoofer’s back, and ports for audio-in and video-out are found on the dock’s back.
iHome includes all of the parts you’ll need to connect the system: red and black cables for the satellites, a white FM antenna and detachable base, a clear and copper AM antenna, a data-style connector for the dock and subwoofer, and an auxiliary audio-in cable. The primary iPod dock is an Apple standard Universal Dock, for which iHome includes three adapters (full-sized prior iPods and minis); there’s also a dedicated iPod shuffle dock. iHome’s also includes a radio frequency (RF) remote control that provides distance access to the entire system.
There’s a lot for the remote control to handle. Eighteen buttons are found on the dock and clock radio base station, including six radio preset buttons, volume up and down buttons, a power button, iPod and radio toggles, play/pause, track backward and forward buttons, a switch to toggle between clock, EQ and dimmer modes, and a button marked “display.”
As it turns out, the integrated LCD screen on the dock’s face has several features. Like iHome’s earlier iH36 Under the Counter system, you’re able to see iPod track, artist, and album information on iH52’s screen if you press the Display button. The reason this feature is optional - again, thankfully - is to give users the ability to use either the iPod’s screen and controls up close, or iH52’s larger, menu-less screen and controls from a distance. In both modes, iH52’s remote and buttons permit you to change, play or pause iPod tracks, but only non-Display mode lets you use the iPod’s own controls for these features.
iHome’s clock is large enough to be read from a distance - there’s nothing fancy about it. The screen also shows radio tuning and iPod indicators depending on the mode you’re in, each also easy to read from a distance. Notably, the iPod shuffle on-screen display always includes the time and the phrase, “iPod Shuffle;” it cannot display track, artist, or album information on iH52’s screen.
In addition to the system-wide audio connections, iH52’s dock includes a iPod Dock Connector port for computer synchronization, and two different video outputs - composite and S-Video. The unit’s bottom has a battery compartment to keep the clock running when power is disconnected.
iHome’s subwoofer fires from its right side through a metal grille; the left side is just a flat cabinet surface. On the rear of the subwoofer are ports for connection to the satellite speakers and the docking station; a large knob adjusts the subwoofer’s presence from “non-existent” to “warm,” as we’ll explain further below.
There are similar wiring ports on the rear of each of the satellites. A knob on each satellite detaches the speaker from the metal base, if you prefer to mount the satellites horizontally. One configuration or the other may prove better depending on whether you want to situate iH52 next to a computer monitor; its rear auxiliary-in port and component design make it an ideal multimedia speaker system, as well.
iHome’s included, color-matched remote control features iPod and radio controls. The iPod controls are laid out in a simple pattern like the iPod shuffle’s; a mute button turns off the speakers, while other buttons access the auxiliary input, radio, presets, settings, and display features. We weren’t blown away by the remote’s performance: in addition to the fact that we didn’t find the buttons to be as universally responsive as we would have preferred, the RF remote performed no better on distance than Infrared remotes we’ve tested. Like them, it stumbled at distances greater than 25 feet, though to its credit, lighting conditions and line-of-sight within that range didn’t affect its performance at all.
Remote performance aside, we liked almost all of iH52’s other functionality, and thought that it delivered enough value for the $200 asking price to be worthy of a strong recommendation. Freed from the constraints of an all-in-one speaker cabinet, iHome has loaded up its satellites with four 1.5” drivers, and its mostly wooden subwoofer with a ported 7.5” speaker: carved from plastic, the port lets the right-firing driver breathe from its front. Together, the components deliver sound that lacks a little in the treble department relative to the best multi-component speakers we’ve tested, but has cleaner, deeper bass than any equal or lower-priced all-in-one out there - a tested, popular sound signature that iHome and other companies know to be satisfactory for most people. The sound quality is only enhanced by the system’s stereo separation and staging, which benefits substantially from user-adjustable speaker locations, and the unit’s above-average mid-range performance. In our view, the iH52 delivers sound that average listeners will almost instantly like.
We say “almost” for only two reasons. There are five total equalizer settings - “flat,” “rock,” “jazz,” “pop,” and “R&B” - and you’ll have to activate one of the treble-boosting settings to get high-end comparable to peer audio systems; flat is just a little too flat. At this price, we tend to prefer component systems with separate bass and treble controls, but here, you’re stuck with limited presets. Compounding this, the treble boosted EQ presets only enhance iH52’s other little audio limitation - a bit of amplifier hiss at normal levels - which isn’t as pronounced in the best systems we’ve seen at this price level. For these reasons, audiophiles won’t find the system to be totally thrilling, and they’re also the primary reasons that iH52 fell short of our high recommendation.
The decision to go with a B+ rating here rather than an A- was difficult to make given iH52’s price - even picky listeners will like the unit’s other bonuses. iHome’s integrated FM and AM radios sounded pretty good in our testing, varying from good to great depending on the station and other local interference, and iHome’s iPod docks worked as expected, each charging its respective iPod and performing audio without bleeding into the other’s audio. These other features add so much value to the standard component speaker formula that we were exceedingly tempted to offer a high recommendation regardless of the system’s audio limitations; for certain users, we think that this system will rate as an A- caliber product.
While we wouldn’t replace a $250 pair of Altec Lansing FX6051 speakers - the ones with 12 drivers and a hulking subwoofer - or even peer-priced JBL systems such as the Encounters with the iH52 on audio quality alone, there’s also no doubt that iH52’s many extra features and slightly lower MSRP will appeal tremendously to people looking for a single audio system that does everything. From radio to double iPod dock to computer- or TV-ready speaker system, the iH52 is a model for what the “complete package” docking iPod speaker system should look like, feature-wise, especially for the dollar. If it only had a little less amplifier noise, superior equalization options, and better RF remote performance, it would be a knockout overall package.